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Benefits Discrimination

Many employees know that their employers are prohibited from discriminating against them because of their age, race, gender, disability, or other protected category. Few employees, however, are aware that employers can also be held liable for discriminating against employees who exercise the rights granted to them by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Prohibited Acts

According to Section 510 of ERISA, employers are barred from taking certain actions against plan participants or beneficiaries who exercise their rights, including:

  • Suspension;
  • Expulsion;
  • Discipline;
  • Discharge;
  • Issuing fines; and
  • Other forms of interference.

In most cases, ERISA discrimination claims occur when an employer attempts to prevent an employee from making a claim for benefits or becoming eligible for benefits by terminating their employment. Fortunately, ERISA not only protects employees who have been discriminated against, but also protects employees whose employers even attempted to interfere with their rights to benefits. Proof of actual interference is not required and later receiving benefits still does not preclude a retaliation claim.

However, in order to be protected by ERISA, a person must fall under the definition of a participant or a beneficiary, which includes employees or former employees of a qualifying employer as well as members or former members of an employee organization who are currently or may become eligible to receive a benefit under an employee plan governed by ERISA.

Establishing Discrimination

An employee with an ERISA-based discrimination claim must prove that the employer took an adverse employment action with the specific intent of either:

  • Retaliating against the employee for exercising a right; or
  • Interfering with the employee’s attainment of a benefit to which he or she was entitled.

This means that an employee must demonstrate that the loss of benefits was the primary factor behind the termination or other adverse employment action. Merely showing that the loss of benefits was a consequence of the employer’s action will not satisfy this requirement. To establish a prima facie case of discrimination, the plaintiff must show that:

  • He or she was engaged in an activity protected by ERISA;
  • He or she suffered an adverse employment action; and
  • There is a causal connection between the employee’s protected benefit and the employer’s action.

If an employee is able to provide sufficient prima facie evidence, the burden will be shifted to the employer who will be given the opportunity to provide a nondiscriminatory and legitimate reason for the action. If an employer is able to do so, the plaintiff will be required to present evidence establishing that the employer’s reason was a mere pretext for the actual adverse action. Otherwise, he or she will not be able to overcome the employer’s claim.

Possible Penalties

Plaintiffs who are able to demonstrate that their employer took an adverse employment action may be able to recover the following damages:

  • Reinstatement;
  • The benefits that they were unfairly denied;
  • The interest that accrued while the benefits were withheld; and
  • Attorneys’ fees.

The Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) can also assess civil and criminal penalties against the employer.

Contact an Experienced ERISA Attorney Today

Please contact Bartolic Law by calling (312) 635-1600 to speak with an experienced ERISA attorney who can evaluate your case and explain your legal options.

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